Australia — About a fifth of the Victorian bushland targeted by the State Government for fuel-reduction burning over the past decade has remained untouched, official figures show.
The Opposition seized on the data yesterday to accuse the Government of failing to do enough to reduce the risk to life and property in the lead-up to the Black Saturday bushfires.
Figures from the Department of Sustainability and Environment show that since Labor won office in the 1999-2000 financial year, the amount of land subjected to “controlled burns” has been 20 per cent below the Government’s own targets.
Nationals leader Peter Ryan said the land left untouched, more than 200,000 hectares, was twice the area of the Great Otway National Park.
The day after counsel assisting the Bushfires Royal Commission Jack Rush, QC, identified controlled burning as a key focus for investigation, Mr Ryan said targets had to be taken seriously if Victoria was to avoid a repeat of Black Saturday.
“Victorians can’t afford another fire season with our state endangered by Labor’s incompetence,” he said.
The data, from department annual reports, shows 2005-06 was the worst year, with the target for controlled burns undershot by about 62 per cent, whereas last year was the best, with the target exceeded by about 20 per cent.
Premier John Brumby said Mr Ryan’s comments “sound like a criticism of the Kennett government”, because last year’s burn was the biggest in 15 years.
Mr Brumby said fire authorities conducted fuel-reduction burns on every day that it was safe to do so last year.
“The last thing you’d want to do, for goodness sake particularly in the context of what happened on February 7 (Black Saturday) is to be undertaking fuel-reduction burning on days when it is not safe to do so,” he said.
“We’ll do as much as we can going forward, but we’re not going to be in a position of instructing the fire authorities to fuel-reduce burn when it is not safe to do so and when people’s lives or property will be put at risk.”
But Mr Ryan said more burns would be possible if the Government provided more manpower.
He called on Mr Brumby to immediately accept last year’s recommendation from a Labor-dominated parliamentary committee to triple the annual target for prescribed burning from 130,000 hectares to 385,000 hectares.
The royal commission came under more criticism yesterday over its refusal to give leave to victims and some industry bodies to appear before it.
The Victorian Farmers Federation said it was shocked to be “blocked” from the commission while the Australian Workers Union was given leave to appear.
“It is appalling that farmers who survived this tragedy will not have the opportunity to present their experience,” VFF president Simon Ramsay said.